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The Post-Nicene Greek Fathers

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The "Blessed Theodoret" is the hesitating title which the Church has bestowed upon this father, while granting to his antagonist Cyril the full honors of a saint. Be it so; but men still have their opinions as to the comparative saintliness of the two men, which opinions are not in favor of the saint. Theodoret's name, the "Gift of God," was bestowed by his mother, who received his birth at Antioch, A. D. 386 as a special answer to prayer, and consecrated him from his infancy to the service of God. As a child he was much under the influence of holy men who had counseled his mother, particularly of a monk, Peter, to whom he was often taken to receive his blessing. We are told that he was entered at the monastery of Euprepius, near Antioch, when only seven years of age; though he would seem to have lived for the most part with his parents until twenty-three years old. But, if not a constant inmate of this biblical school of Antioch, Theodoret grew up in its atmosphere, and was imbued with the principles of Diodorus, and Theodore, and Chrysostom. After the death of his parents he distributed his fortune to the poor, and went to a monastery at some distance from Antioch. There he remained seven years, when he was made bishop of Cyrus, a small and secluded city on the Euphrates. Though unattractive as a home, his diocese, which included eight hundred villages, gave him abundant room for labors, which he performed with self-sacrificing zeal. Besides discharging faithfully his diocesan duties, both as to spiritual and temporal concerns, he was frequently summoned to Antioch, where he preached with great eclat before the most cultivated audiences. But Theodoret is known to the world not so much as Bishop of Cyrus, or as a great preacher, as by the commentaries which he wrote, and for the part which he took, by voice and pen, in the Nestorian controversy. Cyril's twelve chapters and anathemas launched against Nestorius were equally in opposition to the whole Antiochian school, and Nestorius naturally looked to the scholars of Antioch for help. Theodoret was the man for the emergency, and, stepping to the front, he became, above patriarch and metropolitans, the real leader of the Oriental bishops in their opposition to the Egyptians. He wrote a reply to Cyril's chapters, accusing them of Apollinarian heresy. He was one of the bishops at the Council of Ephesus, and among the deputies sent by them to Constantinople. When, later, John of Antioch arranged a peace with Cyril, Theodoret, while agreeing to the theological settlement, refused to sanction Nestorius's condemnation. Holding a place midway between those who weakly yielded everything to Cyril and those who would yield nothing, he conserved and strengthened the Antiochian spirit, so much needed by the Church, in opposition to the increasing narrowness of Alexandria. For, if Cyril's theology was open to question, that of his successor, Dioscorus, an equally bad man and a far worse theologian, was positively a reproach to the Christian intelligence. In opposition to his monophysite error, Theodoret maintained the broader doctrine of the Church. For this the "Robber-Synod," held at Ephesus in 449, condemned him, and, the civil power concurring, he was deposed from his see. In this emergency, most of his old Antiochian friends being dead, he appealed to Pope Leo for assistance. He gave him his sympathy and aid, and in the Council of Chalcedon (A. D. 451) he was restored to his see. Returning to Cyrus, he continued in quiet, composing his commentaries, until his death in 458. Theodoret may fairly be called the greatest Greek churchman of his day. In his death the Eastern Church lost its last great writer and theologian. The ecclesiastics who in the next century quarreled over what they did not understand, saw fit, at the fifth general council, to condemn his writings in common with Theodore's, and thus to cast a cloud over his name. It is in consequence of this that the Church has withholden from him the full honors of sainthood. Instead of such a formal canonization, let the Church universal think reverently of him as a self-denying bishop, an able and orthodox theologian, an eloquent preacher, a great expositor of Scripture, and as the chief representative of the Antiochian school of thought in the early Church. Following are described his chief works:



Photius, the learned critic of the ninth century, who had the whole of the early ecclesiastical literature before him, has thus characterized Theodoret's writings upon the Scriptures: "His language is very proper for a commentary; for he explains in proper and significant terms whatsoever is obscure and difficult in the text, and renders the mind more fit to read and understand it by the pleasantness and elegance of his discourse. He does not weary his reader by long digressions, but on the contrary he labors to instruct him ingeniously, clearly, and methodically in everything that seems hard. He never departs from the purity and elegance of the Attic tongue, if there is nothing that obliges him to speak of abstruse matters to which the ears are not accustomed. For it is certain that he passes over nothing that needs explanation, and it is almost impossible to find any interpreter who unfolds all manner of difficulties better, and leaves fewer things obscure. We may find many others who speak elegantly, and explain clearly, but we shall scarcely find any who have written well, and who have forgotten nothing which has need of illustration, without being too diffuse, nor without running out into digressions, at least such as are not absolutely necessary for clearing the matter in hand. Nevertheless, this is what Theodoret has observed in all his commentaries upon Holy Scripture, in which he has wonderfully well opened the text by his labor and diligent search."

The commentaries are upon nearly the entire Scriptures. Those upon the historical books of the Old Testament, from Genesis to 2 Chronicles, are in the form of questions and answers upon the more difficult passages. The author intended the work, he says, first, to stop the mouth of cavilers by showing that there is neither falsity nor contradiction in Scripture; and, secondly, to content those who are truly inquiring by satisfying their doubts. The first question raised is, Why did not the author of the Pentateuch make a discourse upon the being and nature of God before he spoke of the creation? To which it is answered that he condescended to the weakness of those he had to instruct by speaking first of the creatures which they knew; that he could sufficiently make known the Creator by setting forth his eternity, wisdom, and bounty in the history of creation; and, lastly, that he spoke to persons who already had some idea of God, since Moses had already taught them that he is what he is, a name that signifies eternity. Various questions in regard to angels are considered, and among the answers it is declared that every person has his guardian angel. In answering a question upon the making of man in God's image and likeness, Theodoret cites Diodorus, Theodore, and Origen to prove that the likeness is to be understood not of the body, but of the soul. He also has frequent recourse to the various Greek versions of Scripture and to the Hebrew text as given in Origen's "Hexapla." The comments are ordinarily straightforward explanations of the natural sense of the text. But, in revolting against the old allegorical method, Theodoret was no extremist; and where, as in the sacrifices and ceremonies of the old law, there is a plain foreshadowing of what appears in the law of Christ, he recognizes it and explains it. He also draws instruction as to manners and morals out of most of the ordinances of Leviticus and Numbers. There is a special preface upon the later historical books which reads quite like the criticisms of modern scholars: "There were many prophets," it says, "who have left us no books, and whose names we learn out of the history of the Chronicles. Every one of these prophets wrote ordinarily what happened in his time. For this reason it is that the first book of Kings is called by the Hebrews and Syrians the prophecy of Samuel. We need only to read it, and we shall be convinced of the truth of this. They, then, that composed the books of Kings wrote them a long time after, from these ancient memoirs. For how could they that lived in the time of Saul or David write that which happened afterward under Hezekiah and Josiah? How could they relate the war of Nebuchadnezzar, the siege of Jerusalem, the captivity of the people, and the death of Nebuchadnezzar? It is, then, apparent that every prophet wrote what passed in his own time, and that others, making a collection of their memoirs, have composed the books of Kings. And after these came other historiographers, who made t a collection of what the first had forgotten, of which they composed the two books of Chronicles."

In the preface upon the Psalms, Theodoret gives his idea of what a commentary ought to be, and says that "we ought to know above all things that a prophecy is not designed only to foretell what shall happen, but also to be a history of what is present and past; since Moses has written a history of the creation, not from the records of men, but by the inspiration of the Spirit, wherein he speaks of what happened in his own time, as the plagues of Pharaoh, and foretells things to come, as the advent of Jesus Christ."

The Song of Songs is construed spiritually, the preface, after a somewhat extended apology for the book, saying, "We do nothing extraordinary, then, when we understand the Song of Songs spiritually, and so much the rather because the apostle has expounded who is the bridegroom and the spouse spoken of in this book. Jesus Christ himself is called the bridegroom; the spouse is his Church; her companions are the souls who are not yet perfect enough to be spouses of Jesus Christ; they that converse with the bridegroom are either the prophets or apostles, or more likely the angels."

A commentary upon Isaiah is lost, but we have books upon all the other prophets.

The writings upon the New Testament embrace all the Epistles of Paul, and have been thought to excel all the other commentaries of Theodoret in solidity and elegance. Theodore and Chrysostom having already written upon these books, Theodoret explains that he makes use of their writings, that, in fact, he does nothing more than abridge the works of others. This is literally true of his use of Chrysostom, whose commentaries he abridges by simply cutting off the moral reflections.



Ecclesiastical History.

Next after his fame as a commentator, Theodoret is best known as a church historian. He begins his narration with the rise of the Trinitarian controversy, circa 312, and comes down to 429, the eve of the controversy upon the Person of Christ. The history is thus a continuation of Eusebius's, as it is supplementary to those of Socrates and Sozomen, treating of important events which these authors omit. Its style is superior to theirs, and it cites original authorities, but it is not at all explicit in matters of chronology.


Philotheus; or, Lives of the Monks.

This work celebrates the virtues of thirty famous monks of Theodoret's time, many of whom he had known personally. One of these was the well-known Simeon Stylites, who among other austerities, such as passing the Lenten season absolutely without food or drink, stood for years upon the top of a lofty pillar. The book is written in a somewhat bombastic style, in accord with the fulsome praise which it bestows upon the monks even in their most extravagant excesses. But it is pleasant, amid so much that repels us in the lives of these ascetics, to find some things that compel our admiration, and make us feel that there was something of the divine in the impulse which drove so many men of that unsettled and wicked age into a life of solitude. Such is the incident related of the monk Marcian, descended from a noble family of Cyrus. He was in the habit of eating every day, about evening, a quarter of a pound of bread, accounting it better to eat every day, without ever fully satisfying his hunger, than to fast many days and then eat his fill. Another monk named Avitus having come to see him, after he had entertained him a long time, he caused supper to be got ready after the ninth hour, and invited the solitary to eat with him. The hermit told him that it was his custom not to eat till the sun was down, and that he sometimes staid two or three days without eating. Marcian desired him for once to waive that custom for his sake, because, being weak of body, he was not able to wait till the sun was down. Avitus demurring, he sat down to supper, saying that he was sorry that Avitus had taken so much pains to visit a person so intemperate. The guest then consented to eat, and Marcian said to him, "We have no custom more than you to eat before the sun is down, but we are sensible that charity ought to be preferred before fasting, for that is commanded, but fasting is left to our own liberty, and we ought to prefer the law of God before any private institutions."



Some of Theodoret's treatises are lost, among them five books against Cyril. We have his confutation of Cyril's twelve chapters and the four considerable works which follow:


Evanistes or Polymorphus.

This name is suggested by the many forms assumed by the error which the book combats. The first part of the work consists of three dialogues upon the nature of Christ, in which one speaker proposes questions and raises objections, and the other defends the true faith. The doctrine advocated is that Jesus Christ is both God and man, the human and the divine nature being united in one person, yet each subsisting without mixture or confusion with the other. Following the dialogues, which are written in a familiar style adapted to general readers, is a more scholarly synopsis of the argument.


Of Heretical Fables.

The first four of these five books give an historical sketch of the various heresies after the manner of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, and Clement. In the fourth book the Nestorian heresy is described, but it is supposed that this part is a forgery, for it treats Nestorius with great severity, making him a veritable instrument of the devil, whereas Theodoret was always kindly disposed toward him. It is noticeable that neither Pelagians nor Origenists are named among the heretics. Book five gives a summary of the true faith, and then treats of various points of morals.


Discourses of Providence.

These are ten discourses upon natural theology, delivered probably at Antioch. In them the author argues a providential design from the position of the heavenly bodies, the order of the elements, the contexture of man's body, the invention of the arts, and the dominion of man over the beasts. He answers some objections by showing that poverty and misfortune, which even just men have to endure, have their compensations; that virtue is profitable even though it be not recompensed in this world. In the last discourse it is taught that the love of God for man thus proved was chiefly shown in the incarnation of the Son.


Cure of Heathen Falsehoods.

This is a work of vast learning, quoting upward of a hundred heathen writers. The discourses, twelve in number, are elaborate in their style, and will compare favorably with any of the works of antiquity in defense of Christianity.



Theodoret's letters, which are numerous, are generally divided into two classes, public and private epistles. The former relate chiefly to the troubles with the Egyptian party in the Church over the Nestorian question. Dupin says of Theodoret's letters that they all discover a great deal of piety, charity, and humility, and of the private letters that they have all the qualifications which render letters valuable, for they are short, plain, neat, elegant, civil, pleasant, full of matter, wit, and holiness.


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